VETERANS LEAD THE WAY ON 5-4 ROAD TRIP

Much of the talk about the 2012 A’s centers around the rookies and rightfully so.  After all, Oakland has already played 12 rookies during a season that is only six weeks old—by the far the most rookies of any team in baseball.  Seattle is next with seven rookies.  And the A’s young talent has been as good as advertised thus far, with the likes of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and pitchers Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker and Jordan Norberto all bona fide early Rookie of the Year candidates.

Yet, the story of this team’s just-completed 5-4 road trip—a trip that ran through two of baseball’s hottest teams (Tampa Bay and Baltimore) and one of the toughest road venues in the majors (Fenway Park)—is not the rookies.  It’s veterans who have stepped up to produce pivotal performances on the field, and critical leadership off of it.  No one more personified that role than Petaluma’s Jonny Gomes, who signed with the A’s as a free agent in the offseason.  In many ways, you might be better off dropping the “Gomes” and just call him “Jonny Gamer.”  Whether it’s hitting a clutch home run, crashing into an outfield wall to make a catch or, yes, even stealing a base, Jonny Gamer comes to play.  In fact, he did all three during the Rays’ series, going 5 for 9 with three RBI during the three-game set.  He entered Saturday’s contest as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and ultimately became the star of the game.  With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 10th, it was Gomes who hauled in a Carlos Pena opposite-field fly that seemed headed for extra bases.  It wasn’t so much that Jonny caught the ball as much as he tackled it.  Arms and legs sprawled everywhere.  When the smoke cleared, he had robbed Pena of a certain double that would have placed the A’s in serious jeopardy of a second straight loss.  Instead, Jonny left a dent in the left field fence and a dagger in the heart of his former team’s fans.  Then the Pride of Petaluma stole the game’s headlines when he mashed a solo home run in the top of the 12th that decided the verdict of a 4-3 road win.  Back in the lineup as the starting left fielder yesterday, Jonny Gamer came up big again with a single, double, two RBI and a stolen base in a 9-5, come-from-behind victory that clinched the series.

Brandon Inge, another veteran who was only added to the roster seven days ago in Boston, has stabilized Oakland’s third base situation with his steady glove and positive clubhouse presence.  And yesterday afternoon, he also delivered one of the biggest home runs of the young season, pouncing on a Matt Moore 3-1 pitch in the third inning for a three-run blast that erased a 4-2 deficit.  He added a seventh-inning sac-fly and the A’s never looked back.

On the mound, two veteran All-Stars also emerged to help show the way.  Brian Fuentes, the prototypical professional no matter what role manager Bob Melvin places him in, came into Wednesday night’s tumultuous game at Fenway and slammed the lid on a 4-2 victory that also netted “Tito” his 200th career save—only the sixth left-hander to achieve that plateau in Major League history.  Returning the closer’s role to Grant Balfour for the Tampa Bay series, Fuentes went on to contribute three scoreless innings of relief over the weekend.  His compatriot, Bartolo Colón, appeared headed toward a series-clinching win in Baltimore last Sunday, only to see his brilliant 8.1 innings of work disintegrate when Balfour failed to close the door on an apparent 2-0 A’s win.  However, Colón demonstrated to the club’s rookies what a leader truly is five days later.  Nursing an upset stomach that struck prior to the first pitch, Bartolo battled his way through five arduous innings and three solo home runs Saturday, giving Oakland the chance to win the game in extra innings.

And beyond the A’s “graybeards” like Gomes, Inge, Fuentes and Colón, Melvin also received key contributions from some of his younger veterans.  Kurt Suzuki, despite being nailed on the hand by a Daniel Bard pitch in Boston Wednesday that later would require x-rays, refused to abandon his pitchers, working the remainder of that victory, as well as the 12-inning marathon in St. Pete Saturday.  Against his wishes, Melvin rested Zuk and his resurgent bat—he’s hitting .314 over his last 10 games—yesterday.  Ace starter Brandon McCarthy also answered the bell during the nine-game, 10-day junket, twirling a pair of victorious gems in Baltimore (7.0 ip, 5 h, 2 r) and Boston (6.2 ip, 5 h, 1 r).  So did reliever Jerry Blevins, who lowered his ERA to 1.42 by reeling off 4.2 scoreless innings on the trip. And let’s not forget the contributions made by Josh Reddick, who’s batting .310 with five multiple-hit games, three home runs and eight RBI in his past 10 contests.

There will be plenty of time for the A’s talented crop of rookies to make their mark. But I’m sure it’s comforting for Melvin and his staff to know that the team’s veterans have stood up and are being counted on as the Athletics have jumped out to a rather surprising 15-14 record and second-place showing in the AL West as we head to Oakland for seven games of home cooking.

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